I don’t know about the rest of you, but I didn’t much feel like celebrating the 4th of July this year (or the last few years, for that matter)…
…Recently, the Supreme Court has gutted fundamental rights, with their sights set on more. Mass shootings have rendered us terrified prisoners held hostage by a government that refuses to do anything. Emboldened racism marches through the streets in plain sight, spewed by white Americans who believe the “freedom” described in our constitution only applies to them. As the title of director Diego Hallivis’ new film American Carnage suggests, we’re living in a time of pure and utter chaos.
Written by Diego and Julio Hallivis, American Carnage follows JP (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), a Latino teen who suddenly finds his family torn apart through an aggressive deportation effort by cowboy hat wearing Governor Harper Finn (Brett Cullen). Without much choice, JP agrees to participate in the Elderly American Tolerance and Understanding Project, in which he and other Latinos facing deportation can assist in an old folks home in exchange for citizenship (a citizenship which many of them should already have, considering they were born in America). Except there’s more to this so called “project” than JP first realizes. The Owl Cove retirement home harbors a terrifying secret that feels right at home in the ole U S of A.
Before the opening credits have even finished rolling, American Carnage packs a disturbing wallop of a reminder to just how awful things are right now, featuring news footage with ironic lines about how America is a “great land” or a “safe haven”, a prelude to more truthful statements like how politicians “need villains so we can scare people…to feel like heroes”. That right there is the ugly reality at the heart of American Carnage. Hallivis’ film isn’t just about the obvious racism or recognizable faces of hate in America, but how integrated into the system all of that is. We’re a country built on racism. It’s in the blood of this nation. Through ways subtle and not, American Carnage is a savage commentary that exposes the fact that even those in power who say they’re fighting for equality cannot be trusted when words are just words and action isn’t taken (looking at you, Democrats).
Too often, minorities are used as pawns by political parties either looking to turn them into the villain, or make themselves into the hero.
Balancing out the depressing yet necessary themes of the film is a slick comedy style and a lively cast that gets you vowing immediate vengeance on anyone who dares harm a hair on their loveable heads. Sweet JP, enchanting love interest, Micah (Bella Ortiz), badass activist Camila (Jenna Ortega) and comic relief Big Mac (Allen Maldonado) all shine with their own uniquely charming personalities. Effective scares are few and far between, but the characters pour enough laugh out loud comedic energy onto the screen to carry the audience through the less exciting segments. Maldonado in particular steals the show with bits like referring to himself as the “black Bruce Willis”, while Ortega once again proves why someone needs to cast her as the lead star in a horror movie already.
Hallivis, as he does with the opening scenes involving JP working at the Lady Liberty’s fast food joint and his adorable sister Lily (Yumarie Morales) celebrating acceptance into Columbia University, is hammering home that these kids are people. Not “illegal immigrants”. Not prisoners. People. These kids, with their own hopes and dreams, are just trying to live in a world corrupted by bigots like Finn and Owl Cove’s founder, Eddie (Eric Dane).
Speaking of, setting American Carnage in a retirement home is a brilliant choice by the filmmakers. There are similarities in the way America treats the elderly and minorities. For the old, a retirement home is a prison, nicer in appearance than actual prisons which our government unfairly fills with minorities, but a prison nonetheless. As the poster for the film says, “no one escapes the daily grind”. A retirement home is where America throws away people no longer deemed capable of said grind. Populated by patients suffering from dementia and other debilitating diseases, it’s also a place where paranoia runs rampant, people can randomly disappear, and Eddie can explain away naked old folks wandering the halls at night, bitey old folks, and old folks contorting into crab-walking, screeching nightmares.
Okay, maybe that last one should seem a lot weirder to the characters.
American Carnage calls back to the age of 70s Sci-fi dystopia like Logan’s Run and others I won’t mention for fear of spoilers, updating them into something that maintains those dark messages while injecting a little more fun into the story. That’s both a positive and negative for the film. Hallivis keeps things as light and entertaining as possible for such a stomach-churning (and perhaps over-complicated) premise, but lessens the blow of the thematic punch in the process. It’s as if Hallivis is pulling his punches, not daring to go quite far enough when the script allows for more. Considering the horrid secrets of Owl Cove, it’s surprising that the violence level of American Carnage is actually quite tame, with just one (albeit glorious) moment of bloodshed to speak of. The audience is mostly robbed of the necessary catharsis we crave from a film like this. For a title like American Carnage, it doesn’t go nearly hard enough on the “carnage” part.
What Hallivis ultimately delivers is a mixed bag that packs in disturbing themes with lighthearted humor. Not quite visceral enough to satisfy expectations, yet disturbing enough that it’s not exactly a “nice” watch, either. American Carnage is an entertaining watch that gives the finger to the “horror isn’t political” crowd with hard-hitting themes that give the viewer plenty to chew on.
American Carnage comes to VOD on July 15th from Saban Films.
By Matt Konopka